April 24, 2017 07:44 AM

Justice Reinvestment Task Force bills face opposition from DAs, some sheriffs

Photo by Robin May


Legislation that targets reform of the state's criminal justice system will be considered in the House and Senate this week, with the bulk of the action centered in Senate Judiciary C Committee which will meet on Tuesday.

The bills are the product of a year-long process that began in 2016 when the Legislature created the Justice Reinvestment Task Force and charged it with reviewing the state's sentencing and correctional practices. Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the United States. The task force's final report notes that a higher percentage of Louisiana residents are under the control of the courts and the Department of Correction than any other state, including Southern states that have crime rates similar to Louisiana's. You can read the executive summary of the report here.

The task force is modeled after similar criminal justice reform efforts in other states and brought together an unlikely coalition of conservatives (Louisiana Family Forum and the Pelican Institute) and liberals (the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center).

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The primary driver of the process is an attempt to rein in state spending on incarceration during a time of ongoing budget constraints. According to the task force, the state is spending $496,728,019 on prisons alone in the current fiscal year which ends on June 30. A much smaller amount (about $60 million) are being spent on community supervision of those convicted and on drug courts.

The task force based its work on data that the Pew Charitable Trusts got from the Louisiana Department of Corrections. It found that the majority of people admitted into prisons each year comprises people returning to prison for parole violations. The majority of those re-admissions are due to parolees failing to comply with either paperwork or payment requirements imposed on them by the courts as conditions for their release.

Louisiana was not always the incarceration leader of the South, much less the country. It grabbed that title through legislation that imposed harsher sentences on non-violent offenders over the past 30 years. Louisiana jails much higher rates of non-violent offenders than other Southern states with equal or higher crime rates, Pew's profile of the state's sentencing practices revealed.

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Pew, which performed criminal just data research in other states where similar reform efforts have taken place, also reported that there is no connection between the number of people in jail and public safety in communities.

Even though district attorneys and sheriffs were on the task force, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association has given tepid support to some of the package and opposes other segments of it. Sheriffs have concerns about the legislative package because so many of them are dependent on payments from the Department of Corrections for the housing of state prisoners in their jails. Fewer state prisoners could translate into fewer state prisoners needing to be housed in parish prisons.

The rubber begins to meet the road this week in the Legislature.

Sen. Dan Claitor's SB16 which addresses the Supreme Court of the United States decision banning the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without benefit of parole is on the Senate Digest for consideration today. Claitor's bill cleared Senate Judiciary C last week.

Both the Senate and the House are due to convene at 3 p.m.

On Tuesday, four other bills in the Justice Reinvestment package will be up for consideration in Senate Judiciary C Committee.

John Burkhart of the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies the four bills as:

• Sen. Danny Martiny's SB139: The bill would afford a path for habitual non-violent offenders to gain access to parole and community-based supervision.

• Sen. Claitor's SB146 would amend the state's Habitual Offender Law to allow for convictions to be removed from a person's record after five years following conviction instead of the current 10 years. The bill would also afford judges some leeway in applying habitual offender status to people who have been arrested.

Senate President John Alario's SB220 would create a class system of felonies similar to those in other states. The state District Attorneys Association objects to this bill saying it needs to be more carefully considered.

• Sen Alario's SB221: This bill, like Claitor's, would amend the Habitual Offender Law to allow for older convictions to be removed from the record of habitual offenders.

Senate Judiciary C will convene on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. in Senate Meeting Room F.

Later in the week, Rep. Terry Landry's HB615 will be called up for floor debate and votes in the House. The bill sets a nine-month window between a decision by a parole board to release a prisoner and the time of that release. It also requires that the prisoner complete rehabilitative training before being released.

The House Order of the Day currently calls for HB615 to be called up for consideration on Thursday.


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